A big hats-off to the author of Fred the First for volunteering to be the first submission! I hope this site becomes a really helpful resource for writers wanting to know where their work stands in the eyes of the industry. It’s hard to know, as a solitary writer, whether your work really is of a publishable standard. It’s possible to get some feedback from friends and family, but, being friends and family, they’re not always exactly honest, and even if they are honest, they’re not necessarily the best judge. You can hire a professional editor to give their opinion, but not everyone can afford one, and not all books are really ready for professional editing anyway. This site gives a professional editor’s opinion of whether an opening works, or if it needs more tweaking, and, if it does, gives some suggestions as to how best to go about it.
On with the first submission:
Title: Fred the First
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Language: BrEng/Aus vocabulary
Synopsis: Living in poverty in Sydney, eleven-year-old Fred discovers he is not a nobody, but a descendant of King Arthur and rightful heir to the legendary sword Excalibur. Forced to deal with a wicked enchantress who covets Excalibur, he is thrust into a series of exciting adventures and new horizons.
[CHAPTER THE FIRST]
Little Freddy knew in his heart of hearts his daddy loved him ever so much. Whenever his daddy winked and smiled in his particular way, little Freddy felt as if something wonderful had been shared.
When little Freddy’s mummy fell sick and went to heaven, he and his daddy had been so sad. When his daddy eventually learned to smile again, it seemed almost as if mummy had come back.
So much had happened since losing little Freddy’s mummy. There were lots of strangers and a long journey and a new place to live. Little Freddy had to learn a new place name: “Sydney”. The sun shone brighter and warmer, and the air had a different, nicer smell to it compared to where they used to live.
Instead of being indoors so much, little Freddy loved to visit a broad beach walking-distance from their house. Together with his daddy, they ran up and down on the soft, squelchy sand under the bright warm sun. The ocean expanse frightened him, but little Freddy still liked to watch his toes disappear under the sand as warm waves washed over them at the sparkling shoreline. When he wasn’t building sandcastles, he could always find something of interest, like shells and seaweed and vivid blue jellyfish little Freddy wasn’t allowed to touch.
One day, little Freddy’s daddy took him to a restaurant they sometimes liked to visit. To little Freddy’s surprise, a woman and a young girl already sat at their favourite booth.
“Cass, this is the four-year-old I’ve told you so much about,” his daddy said to the woman. “Freddy, say hello to your new mummy … and look! You’ve got a new sister as well! Say hello to Patricia!” Startled, little Freddy couldn’t help be shy. He made sure to stay close to his daddy.
Editor’s comments. Let’s stop right there. For a start, there’s an immediate disconnect between the way the story is described in the blurb, “eleven-year-old Fred discovers …” and the way the text begins, “Little Freddy knew in his heart of hearts his daddy loved him ever so much”. An agent might not even read further. They’d think, “This author has no idea how to write an eleven-year-old boy” and reject the piece without even waiting to find out that in this scene Fred is only four. You don’t reveal his age for 250 words, or a full page. All the while the agent, if they’ve even continued reading, is going to have a growing conviction that the ‘voice’ of Fred is totally misplaced. Your target middle-grade reader might have more patience, but you don’t know how many of them you’re also going to alienate with this opening. “How’s the book, son?” “I started it, but it’s about a four-year-old, Dad – I got bored. I think I’ll go and torture a small animal instead.”
What to do? Well the obvious solution is to cut all this backstory and start where the story starts, in medias res, as they say. This is a very common problem and it’s not going to be the first time I say it on this site, I’m sure. You say in the blurb that the story begins when “eleven-year-old Fred discovers …” So why begin writing when Fred is four? It’s nicely written, but there’s nothing overly compelling about this first couple of pages, no vital information that can’t be leached into the story in a much more organic way later on in the narrative. My advice? Start when Fred finds the sword, or very shortly before doing so. That’s when everything changes for Fred, when his real story begins. Up until then he’s just a kid whose mother died, father remarried, and who doesn’t get on too well with his mean step-sister. Even kids whose life this mirrors won’t want to read this – it’s too close to home. What they’ll want to read about is how Fred overcomes his circumstances and (metaphorically or otherwise) slays the dragon, or whatever he does with Excalibur.
So it’s a rejection from me, unfortunately, as most of these submissions are likely to be. I think this beginning needs more work to be saleable. Hone in on the start of the real story, and establish as quickly as possible eleven-year-old Fred’s ‘voice’. However, if it’s any consolation, the actual writing was excellent. Copyediting a manuscript of this technically high standard would be a pleasure, and that alone will stand you in good stead with agents, and editors. Thanks for posting.
Thanks for the feedback. I’ve struggled with the opening for Fred, simply because I’ve been torn between a few betas who have provided conflicting feedback. One one side, they’ve insisted leaving Fred as a linear narrative. On the other, much as your own fedback has provided, they’re insisting on delving straight into the ‘good’ bit and without the circumstances leading up to it, leaving backstory to be peppered amongst it all later. The reality is I don’t feel Fred can ring with authenticity the way it currently does (albeit further on) without the early bits of his life included. The idea was to show a kid in extremely ordinary circumstances having all that blown out of the water by extraordinary circumstances descending unexpectedly.
Now … in the interests of keeping youngsters from getting bored and wandering off to do unspeakable things to innocent animals (!!!), I guess I’ll be tearing stuff out. The thing is I’m still concerned about removing too much and then attempting to introduce much of Fred’s early life (details of which are vital not just to undersand Fred’s character but also there are some pivotal early-life scenes revisited in the threequel) in later narrative, either by flashback or relatively didactic storytelling-within-story.
Yes, I could summarise and trim right down Fred’s early life to a paragraph or three, or instead have Fred describe his early life in conversation with friends etc. I took heart when re-reading the first Harry Potter and found the titular hero didn’t even get a mention until the third page, and even then only in passing, and finally the reader gets to meet him at the beginning of the second chapter. I admit I looked to that device to give myself permission to slowly introduce Fred and his world rather than going in all guns blazing. It’s sounding like I was wrong on that score…
Always the idea of a critique is to generate some thought about your writing. But also, crucially, it’s only one opinion, and while I’m (hopefully) fairly well-informed, that opinion is far from gospel. And it’s not necessarily a crushing blow to get a rejection. As I say, most of the submissions I anticipate will be rejected for one reason or another, just like “in real life”.
To answer your query, I think to have eleven-year-old Fred relate his current problems to past events in his life organically would bring us closer to Fred than you might think, certainly closer than narrating his backstory from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Filter words like “knew” and “felt” actually distance us from the character, rather than involve us. Instead, perhaps Fred is fighting in the back of the car with Patricia, his step-mum intervenes and they have one of those bitter “You always take her side” arguments? There are lots of ways to give us that same information in a less static narrative.
Am awaiting the flaying of my own submission from the esteemed editor of this site and offer this meanwhile in a spirit of anxious camaraderie and support.
Assume it was your intention to develop the voice/pov to something more age-appropriate as you went along? If the early details are important to the plot maybe do it instead as a flashback in the age-tone of your target readership? You could put some kind of teaser in to make the reader aware that we are shortly about to jump in as the action begins but that this is a vital introduction? I have never been published (so what do I know!) but maybe something along the lines of ‘Freddy was eleven when he found out about Excalibur. A lot had happened to him by then…’
In writerly friendship
Thank you, Annie. Certainly on my “to be considered” list. I was loathe to include much in the way of flashbacks, as keeping the timeline linear has been an important consideration for the reader age group. I actually had a bit of narrative timeline shuffling around in an earlier draft, but a couple of betas emphatically rejected such a device, insisting on the linear timeline. I have already written the sequel and the threequel, and the threequel especially revisits some of Fred’s early life (not through flashback but by a bit of time-travel). I don’t want to leave the illustration of such pivotal events to the threequel, as such mystery would be too much and make Fred’s personality and circumstances seem a little incongruous in the first book. I suspect there will be a great deal of snippetry involved with the first book’s opening, and dressed-up info-dumping a little later on in order to be as engaging as possible.